This post was written by Kara Zelasko, the Senior Cultural Programs Associate at Meridian. It is a part of a blog series highlighting and acknowledging the work and contributions of Black diplomats during Black History Month.
Meridian’s Center for Cultural Diplomacy (MCCD) owes a lot to the legacy of John Reinhardt, who in 1957 became a Foreign Service Officer for the United States Information Agency (USIA), which was merely a year after USIA launched its first cultural initiative. As the USIA expanded its cultural diplomacy efforts, Reinhardt continued to gain experience in the Foreign Service. Eventually, he returned to the USIA as Director in 1977 and oversaw its transition to the International Communication Agency, placing an emphasis on fostering a two-way dialogue between nations for mutual understanding. Woven throughout his storied career is an emphasis on cultural diplomacy and the way culture can bring to light shared interests and common values.
Born John Edward Reinhardt in Glade Spring, VA, on March 8, 1920, he grew up in Knoxville, TN, and graduated in 1939 from Knoxville College. Reinhardt enlisted in the Army during World War II and afterwards pursued a graduate degree at University of Wisconsin. He received his doctorate in 1950, writing his thesis on James Russell Lowell, the American poet and critic who was also a diplomat. He took a teaching position at Virginia State College until he was inspired by a visit from a State Department official to pursue government work. When he visited Washington, DC to evaluate his prospects, he learned the State Department “was not looking for many black people in those days” and instead was directed to the United States Information Agency, which was an unknown agency to him at the time.
Reinhardt’s first post in the Foreign Service was as a Cultural Officer. He was stationed in Japan, the Philippines, and Iran before becoming the USIA Assistant Director for Africa and the Far East between 1966-71. President Nixon tapped Reinhardt for the ambassadorial assignment in Nigeria, which became one of his toughest posts to date. Reinhardt had to uphold the position of the U.S. to continue importing chrome, which was essential to a range of U.S. industries, from the white separatist regime in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. This position openly defied United Nations sanctions against Rhodesia, and Reinhardt knew “there was nothing that would persuade the Nigerians, or other Africans, that we should import chrome from Rhodesia of all places,” and that the entire episode was “a low point” in his career. Eventually, as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs — he was the first African American to serve in that role — and one of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s closest advisors on Africa, he joined the team to help devise the complicated shift to Black majority rule in Rhodesia.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter recognized Reinhardt’s immense contribution to the USIA and named him Director, a role in which he served from 1977-1981. He was the first career diplomat to earn that position. As part of a larger initiative to increase mutual understanding between the United States and other nations, Reinhardt oversaw a transition in the organization as it became the International Communication Agency. This transition included the expansion of cultural programming and incorporating the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs from the State Department. Reinhardt explained that the USIA had existed “to tell others about our society” in a “fundamentally one-way” dialogue. In contrast, the new agency would ensure activities and programs were “designed to learn as well as to inform, and to inform as well as to learn.”
After stepping down in 1980, he spent a few years as acting administrator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art and then as the Smithsonian’s acting assistant secretary for history and art. Woven throughout Reinhardt’s career, beginning with his dissertation through his work as a Cultural Officer and then taking on positions within the Smithsonian, is an appreciation and understanding of the essential nature of culture in diplomacy. Meridian seeks to compound on his legacy in the 21st century by continuing to bring a diverse slate of cultural programming at home and abroad.